Police-Involved Shootings Highlight Problem With Law Enforcement 'Culture'

Police-Involved Shootings Highlight Problem With Law Enforcement 'Culture'

7:30pm Apr 10, 2015

NPR's Audie Cornish talks with Seth Stoughton, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, about his view that there needs to be a paradigm shift in policing away from the "warrior mindset" to a "guardian" role.

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The shocking video of the North Charleston shooting has also raised questions about when and how police use deadly force. Our next guest thinks this incident and others in Ferguson, Mo., Staten Island and elsewhere point to a larger problem with the culture of policing. Seth Stoughton is at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He's also a former police officer. He's concerned about what he calls the warrior mindset of police culture. He says officers see themselves as soldiers, and every citizen is a potential threat. Seth Stoughton says it starts at the academy.

SETH STOUGHTON: You see really heart-wrenching videos that are presented as officer survival training, but the videos show many officers being brutally beaten or killed. The point of that training is to drive home the fact that hesitation or complacency can be fatal. The problem with that is that it drives a huge wedge between officers and the civilians that they interact with, and it dramatically exaggerates the actual dangers of policing.

CORNISH: So what does this kind of - you describe hyper-vigilance - look like in terms of everyday interactions with police?

STOUGHTON: Sure. So I'll give you an example. Imagine that you are a police officer. You are driving around. You are a new officer. You're looking to make those community contacts that will be so useful throughout your career, except everyone that you see as you drive around, you have been told repeatedly, is a potential armed threat and is maybe interested in and certainly capable of killing you.

CORNISH: You argue that instead of warriors, the culture of policing should be focused on being a guardian, and this puts the focus on not just service, but being respectful and considerate in your interactions with people. And one of your suggestions is that they have contact with people - meaningful contact that does not require, like, checking ID and things like that. Why is that significant?

STOUGHTON: It's about officers getting to know people as individuals and giving the community a chance to get to know them as individuals. Let me give you an example. I was a young patrol officer. I had been having a bad night, and I spoke to someone not very nicely. And another officer who had been a rural sheriff for a while said, you really need to talk to people better than that. You need to relate to them better. And the reason that that's so important is because if you're getting your butt kicked one day, you want people in the community to stand up for you and to say, no, no, he's one of the good guys. You don't want them to join in the kicking. And that, I think, makes the point perfectly clear. We actually increase officer safety, and we increase community safety by building better relationships - that is by just getting to know people as individuals and by respecting them as individuals in our encounters with them.

CORNISH: The mindset you describe, the warrior mindset, seems pretty deeply ingrained. I mean, how do you see this really changing?

STOUGHTON: I do not see it changing quickly. I think it will take a sustained effort, starting at the police academy. And it has to be sustained through in-service training. One of the things that we see in policing is that there are generational effects. That is, a lot of what young officers learn, they learn from more senior officers. But that also means that you can phase out different aspects of police training as older officers retire, you can change police culture gradually. This is not a three-month or a six-month endeavor. This is a 20-year endeavor, but it could completely reshape police culture.

CORNISH: Seth Stoughton - he teaches criminal law at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He's also a former police officer. Seth Stoughton, thanks so much for speaking with us.

STOUGHTON: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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